As I recently wrote in response to Penelope’s post on what you do with your time after work, it’s important to continually challenge yourself in new ways. I recall a time in my life when it consisted of little more than the go to work, come home and plop on the couch and watch a few shows, perhaps hang out with my boyfriend, procrastinate on researching for my thesis, and fight the jealousy that he had more friends than me and thus didn’t spend every spare second in my company. It was a tough time. I was pretty miserable, even though I probably looked pretty successful. At 24, I’d purchased  my own home, had a growing career at a respected company, and was about to finish my master’s degree. You know, things could have looked a lot worse on the outside. But on the inside, it was pretty much an all-time low.

 And then we – my boyfriend and I – did something that expanded our horizons, challenged us, and gave us the opportunity to grow in totally unexpected ways. We joined a new church. We went a few times, and we didn’t like the music, so we wrote it off. Too rock show for us. But we ended up going back. And we kept going, because the community of people there made the effort to connect to us. We even actually started enjoying the music.  Then, we volunteered to help with the teenagers. And let me tell you that even though I had worked with youth throughout college, it was a totally different and interesting challenge as a professional. Because, the thing was, these kids pretty much will look up to you no matter what. So it makes you really examine your time. You don’t want to have to tell kids who think you are pretty stinking cool that your hobbies include watching TV, examining your yard each night to see if the new grass is growing, and occasionally tossing in a load of laundry. Too lame, and nothing worth looking up to, which you very much want to be.  

So it really made me re-examine my priorities and realize that there were a lot more cool things I should be doing with my time. So I started reading children’s literature again. I also gave up yard work and started this blog. Joined a photography club. Chose only to allow myself to turn on the TV if I had either the jewelry tools in my hands, my laptop on my lap, or my butt on the elliptical.  Then, a month or later, I did something even more drastic. I said “yes” when they asked me to take over the band. Now, I have to tell you that music was my life growing up. Then, I arrived a college prepared to major in music and quickly abandoned the idea because I didn’t want to compete with my friends who were musical, so I considered myself over it. A good choice not to major in music, a bad choice to abandon it. But that’s another post for another time. Seven years later, I picked up a microphone for the first time since freshman year to sing for a crowd of 12-17 year olds. Let me just say, that was a major challenge. So is leading a band, which I’d never really done before. But now Wednesday nights are among my favorite. And I find myself saying things like, “we need to pick that up a little,” or “let’s take that one from the top.” And I love it.  

Trading my butt-on-couch time for jumping up and down on a stage in front of an energetic, tuned-in crowd of teenagers one night a week may sound like a crazy leap. But it’s one of the best things I’ve done in a long time. Because every week, it stretches me, takes me out of my comfort zone, and reminds me that ultimately, if I’m going to be satisfied, I need to be doing something that’s not just challenging, but that adds value to people. Because as much cool stuff as we do, I don’t think we will ever be fully satisfied until we learn to invest time outside of ourselves and our own interests. It could be mentoring someone at work or an at-risk youth. Maybe it’s joining a volunteer organization or just getting to know a neighbor. Whatever works for you.

 

Because an amazing thing happens when you start putting yourself in a place that lets you pour into other people’s buckets. Your own gets just a little more full, and you find that you really don’t miss whatever show it was you used to watch, and you fall asleep much faster when you don’t take time to “wind down” for four hours after work, because you’ve lived a really full day.

 Challenge yourself, give more, sleep better. Repeat.

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So today, I discovered a very interesting concept called Neurobics. Brain aerobics, I suppose. Anyway, it’s great. So, I thought I’d share.

Basically, Neurobics, developed by Lawrence C. Katz and Manning Rubin, is all about harnessing the power of “new” to sharpen your brain functioning. They wrote a book called Keep Your Brain Alive which talks about several ways you can help your brain satisfy its urge to form connections by helping it form new connections.

Here’s what they say on their website: “Making multi-sensory associations, and doing something novel that is important or engaging to you – these are the key conditions for a genuine Neurobic exercise.”

The keys seem to be to involve your senses, keep your attention, and break a routine in an unexpected way. Read here for more on this.

 

Anyway, I fell in love with the idea. I’m a big advocate of engaging your brain, playing, of doing whatever you can to continually learn and stay sharp. But I also don’t have a ton of time to spend in that area. Which is why I love their simple tips. Check out a few:

 

1. Try something with your eyes closed. For example, walking from your car to your house when you get home from work. I did a version of this, years ago, when I visited a concept restaurant in Berlin with a friend. We ate an entire meal in the absolute, utter darkness. We were served by blind servers who didn’t have trouble getting around in the dark. We listened and wondered how close all the tables were, because our ears were so tuned in without sight, everyone seemed to be mere inches away. We smelled and tasted and wondered what we were eating, drinking. Their menu doesn’t specify, instead using riddles to describe each meal (vegetarian, poultry, meat, etc.) It was brilliant. It was compelling. It certainly engaged my brain.

2. Use the other hand. Maybe not the best tip for the practiced ambidextrous citizens out there, but for me, along with probably most of the population, the simple task of brushing my teeth would be a challenge with my left hand. On occasion, I’ve tried scribbling my name this way. But I’ve never gone a whole day that way, like they suggest. Sounds like a learning experience to me. And definitely something new. Also try out using a can opener, a hammer, who knows, the options are endless.

3. Do normal a new way. Anything is up for grabs with this, really. They recommend driving a new way to work or eating an entire meal with your family in utter silence – the idea is to rely on visual cues to indicate what you need. Essentially, making small changes in your routine can help you grow your brain. Which I love to hear! I’m rearranging my desk right now so that my calendar’s on the opposite side and things are all in new places. Isn’t is wonderful that something like that counts?

 

So, maybe it’s not a reset button, but it’s a start.

Now that I’ve uncovered some of the great grad school myths, I have a confession to make. I once bought into many of these myths myself when I applied to grad school myself. Let me tell you a little about my story. I applied to grad school during my job search after college, with the 10-year plan of continuing on to my doctoral degree and teaching as a professor one day. I got in and accepted a post-college internship at a Fortune 500 company in my field.

I wanted to have the option of a flexible career future, so grad school seemed like the perfect thing at the time. I had lots of great experience, but was still in the middle of a pretty intense job hunt in a very competitive market and field. The short version of my job hunt struggle is as follows: I had no professional network, tons of experience, and frustrations more than a mile high. So, I learned the value of a professional network quickly and very definitively in the first year I was out of college.

There I was, in the middle of a graduate program, with my internship coming to a close and no full-time job in sight, ready to get through the next couple of years of grad school so I could guarantee a high paying job, a quick promotion, and a golden ticket to the top. So you see, that naïve, unthinking grad student I was talking about in the last post was basically 100% me.

One day, someone made a phone call that changed my life. In my last few weeks before my internship ended, a mentor at the company I worked at recommended me for an interview for a position at the company I work for today. I am thankful to this day that I’d had the foresight to tell the people in my office that I was looking for full time jobs if they heard of anything. The professional network paid off in a big way. See, what ended up transforming me from the type of grad student I wrote about previously was getting a full time job. It also saved me from even further career frustration and opened more doors than grad school alone ever would have.

I was nervous about doing work full time and school full time and commuting more than two hours a day, but I took on the challenge. It turned out, my new boss had a master’s degree from my university and my new job would reimburse me half the cost of tuition. Not to mention, my boss allowed me to arrange my schedule so I could leave for class early and make up the time on mornings and off days.

For me, professional experience has made a world of difference in my graduate program. Yes, it is time-consuming to work and study at the same time, but it’s doable. I comprehend things on a deeper level than I would otherwise, I can directly use my new knowledge in my job and my writing, and I’m able to challenge myself with theories, ideas and projects that have lots of real-world application. It challenges me to be a more thoughtful, strategic, reasoned professional. More importantly, it’s changed what I want out of my degree and the whole grad school experience.

I know everyone’s story will differ, as will their paths, their motivations and their outcomes – in general and regarding grad school. That’s fine. But from where I am, a little experience makes all the difference in the world.

So, now that you know a little more about my entrance into the world of grad school, stay tuned for my top reasons you should consider applying.

For Grad School 101, Check Out These Posts
Part 1: An Inside Take on the Great Grad School Debate
Part 2: The Truth about the Top Six Grad School Myths